Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fed's Lockhart: The Economic Outlook: A Tale of Two Narratives

by Bill McBride on 2/18/2010 07:20:00 PM

First, Alanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart commented on the increase in the discount rate:

How should today's announcement be interpreted? I would not interpret this action as a tightening of monetary policy or even a sign that a tightening is imminent. Rather, this action should be viewed as a normalization step.
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[T]he public and markets should not misinterpret today's move. Monetary policy—as evidenced by the fed funds rate target—remains accommodative. This stance is necessary to support a recovery that is in an early stage and, in my view, still fragile.
emphasis added
See his speech for more explanation and details.

And on the economic outlook:
I see two competing narratives about how this recovery will play out. Growth in the fourth quarter of 2009 was quite strong and raises hope for a robust recovery. In this, the first narrative—that of a traditional sharp bounce-back following a deep recession—growth exceeds the underlying long-term potential of the economy and unemployment declines at an accelerating pace.

In this narrative, businesses rebuild inventory levels and resume capital expenditures in anticipation of growing sales. Consumers regain confidence, and retail spending grows briskly. You can add positive export growth as the economies of our major trading partners—especially in Asia—also show better growth.

Finally, in this narrative the banking system successfully navigates a weak commercial real estate sector and starts expanding credit to both business and consumers.

The alternative narrative entails some fundamental changes in business practices and consumer habits. In this scenario, businesses have learned from the recession that they can operate permanently at leaner inventory levels and flat or lower employee head counts. And the impressive worker productivity gains measured in recent data continue to accumulate.

Consumers, in this narrative, have assumed a quite different mind-set compared to the precrisis, prerecession "normal." Chastened by the recession and high unemployment—consumers are simply more frugal and more inclined to save. And even if consumers wanted to resume prerecession spending habits, the consumer finance industry, in this narrative, will not accommodate previous levels of consumption.

In this narrative, growth continues, but at a very modest pace, and unemployment is very slow to recede. The first narrative is a return to something resembling normal as we knew it; the second narrative describes a somewhat new and different world.
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My team of Atlanta Fed economists and I are forecasting the second narrative.
There is probably a third narrative too with the economy sliding back into recession.

I'm in the "second narrative" group, and I think growth will be sluggish in 2010 primarily because of the overhang of excess housing inventory (slowing any recovery in residential investment), and because consumers will increase their saving rate to repair their household balance sheets.